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Literature / Herland

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1979 First Edition

Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who bear children through parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction. The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination.

The story was first published in monthly installments as a serial in The Forerunner, a magazine edited and written by Gilman between 1909 and 1916, with its sequel, With Her in Ourland beginning immediately thereafter in the January 1916 issue.

The book is often considered to be the middle volume in her utopian trilogy, preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911). It was first collected in book form in 1979.

This book contains examples of:

  • Artistic License – Biology: Everyone being born from parthenogenis (aside from this being biologically impossible in humans to begin with) would make them all genetically identical-they'd be natural clones. However, this is not shown in the book, and they're distinct enough that eugenics actually can be practiced.

  • Commune: Herland is one, with no private property and children raised communally from age two up.
  • Gendercide: Herland was founded in the wake of a volcanic eruption which killed most of the men, with the rest wiped out in civil war with the women.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Van presents this as the reason why Ellador cannot wrap her mind around the concept of non-reproductive sex. Terry takes a similar, albeit dimmer, view.
  • Lady Land: Herland, naturally. Theirs is a society of only women, as men died out two thousand years ago. Inexplicably, they reproduce by parthenogenesis, giving birth to girls in every case.
  • Marital Rape License: Terry firmly believes that marrying Alima means that he can "master" her at will. His Attempted Rape of her causes his eventual banishment from Herland.
  • One-Gender Race: The story sort of fits this trope, as the inhabitants of Herland are perfectly normal human women but can somehow reproduce asexually, with only girls born.
  • Single Line of Descent: Herland's women are all descended from one women who (after their men died out) then had inexplicably given birth to a child by parthenogenesis. This mutation passed down from her daughters.
  • Truly Single Parent: All of the women in Herland reproduce by parthenogenesis, so they are "single mothers" in the most literal sense. This began when the men were killed in a disaster and then civil war, with one woman giving birth afterward by herself. All women after this are descended from her.
  • Utopia: The story is set in an all female country where the women reproduced by parthenogenesis. The culture is run by a council of "Over Mothers", and motherhood — the bearing and rearing of strong, intelligent, competent, happy children — is the ultimate aim of every member of society (they're also cheerfully eugenicist). They are not a lesbian culture: in fact, they're completely uninterested in sex. One expresses to a male visitor from "Outside" a vague astonishment that in his (presumably North American) culture, married couples engage in sex even when they're not specifically trying to conceive a child: "Do you mean ... that with you, when people marry, they go right on doing this in season and out of season, with no thought of children at all?" Gilman may have rejected the idea that men were necessary but she wasn't able to see further than other authors of her time, who all assume the same thing — that decent ladies don't care about sex.